High mountain vistas, red-rock arches, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife - on Utah's mountain trails you can show it all to your kids.One of the delights of living in the Mountain West is the variety of scenery all around us, and most of it is impressive. And one of the delights of life with children is being able to share with them the wonders of our world.
Hiking is an ideal family activity. It's time together to talk, to exercise, to explore and to play while surrounded by the views that calendars are made of.
The parents at our house like to hike just to see what's over the next hill. But we hike with our five children for a lot of reasons. Our children have found a great sense of accomplishment in conquering a mountain or canyon. Self-esteem, self-assurance and even common sense seems to grow in children with their experiences on the trail. And it's proven to be a very educational activity. Children learn about bugs, rocks, flowers and even about people as they go to new places on their own steam.
Don't wait until children are a "little older" to start. The littlest ones enjoy it as much as the bigger kids and become well-seasoned hikers as they grow. It's true that little short legs can't keep pace with long legs, but if older members of the group recognize the limitations, once a child can run, he or she can also do some hiking.
How far can a child hike? (Well, my children have always lasted as far as I've ever wanted to go.) Actually, as we plan family hikes, we estimate a child can go a distance in miles equal to half of his or her age. Most 4-year-olds can comfortably handle a 2-mile hike with the right encouragement and packing. But little ones are fickle hikers. I wouldn't take anyone under 4 years old any farther than I could carry them, if needed.
Children who are experienced and enthusiastic can tackle much greater distances than half their age in miles. But keep in mind that when the sign says the lake is 2 miles away, it's another 2 miles back, too. And it makes a difference if the last half is uphill or downhill, or in the shade or sun, when you try to estimate how far to go.
Babies can come along, but need special consideration. Sun screen and bug spray is vital, and even still those little guys will bake in a backpack that gets direct sun for a couple of hours. We once used a few sticks, a gingham tablecloth and some string to make a tent over a babypack so our little fair-skinned, red-headed guy could join the rest of us. There are probably many different ways to protect your baby from the elements, but make sure you've planned well. It's never worth taking risks with a baby for a little togetherness.
What about impatient older ones who don't want to wait for the little guys? Send them to scout out the trail ahead and have them come back and report. Take along field guide books and maps so older children can stop to find out about the lizards, streams or rocks they see. Or try assigning the restless one as family photographer. (Check outdoor equipment stores, book stores, the library and your Boy Scout center for maps and great books to take along.)
Children of all ages have more fun if there are games along the way and a little treat ready for the first one to see a red flower, or a furry animal or whatever. We have treats for the second, third, fourth and fifth one spotted, too, for the sake of family peace. Sometimes the whole family is one big team trying to beat the clock. A hike is a good time for guessing games like "What Do I Spy?" or "20 Questions," too.
If you've tried a family hike and your children dragged their feet every step of the way, try it again and let each child invite a friend. With a friend to run and chase with, distances shrink amazingly. But once kids get hooked on hiking, it won't matter how many treats are in the backpack or companions are on the trail, they'll ask you to take them hiking just because it's fun.
Don't limit your hiking to the standard three months of summer. Head a little south and there are nice trails ready in March. Fall makes wonderful hiking even right along the Wasatch Front. One of my favorite memories is a day spent hiking in Millcreek Canyon in mid-October where we all crunched deep piles of leaves in the gentle autumn sun while hiking the Salt Lake overlook trail.